Friday, April 19, 2024

Black Sails, or How to Write Women

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There are few things more exhilarating for a nerd than finding a new piece of media to love. Especially in the age of disappointment, where previously beloved shows and long-awaited adaptations just suck. They suck so much they drain your soul away.

Well, I have good news for you: Black Sails doesn’t suck. Not only that, but it’s actually good.

If you’ve been hanging out on The Fandomentals for a while then this shouldn’t be news to you. Bisexual pirates with consistent motivations in a story that is actually coherent! It’s sometimes hard to act as though that’s not some kind of Holy Grail of fandom.

But the true highlight of this series, other than Billy Bones’s biceps, is its female characters, and the different ways that they express their own strength.

There often seems to be confusion when a female character is called “strong”. (I wonder who’s responsible for that…) It doesn’t mean that she can bench press her own body weight (though maybe she can) and it doesn’t even mean that she’s mentally strong. A “strong” female character is one that is well-rounded and fully realized. She can be an amoral villain, or a cinnamon roll, what matters is that they’re actually people, with their own stories.


Max: A Pillar of the Community

The media doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to depicting sex workers. There are exceptions, but the Hooker with a Heart of Gold trope needs to die.

Max doesn’t have a heart of gold. She’s has a heart, yes, but she’s not there to support a male protagonist: this woman is out for herself and she’s not ashamed of it. She, a former slave with really no advantages whatsoever, ends series three being indispensable to the government and without any really enemies. And she achieves this because she because, well, she’s a people person. She can read people’s moods and personalities, she always knows what to say to get what she wants.


Yes, Max doesn’t always use this power for good, and it’s hard to argue that her use of sex to manipulate people is astoundingly feminist. But her ambition—her desire to improve her own circumstance—is never framed as a negative thing.

Her scripting in the second and third season is even more exceptional when you consider how badly they botched her plotline in the first. Her character was there all along, but it was a little hard to notice through all the rape and brothel orgies sometimes. The show improved massively in this area in the following two seasons, with sex work and sex workers becoming increasingly prominent, and in turn accorded increasing agency. And it managed to do this without slutshaming anyone, while also also exploring themes of polyamoury.

Good job, show.

Anne Bonny: Little girl with a knife

There are many male characters out there who kill lots of people and still somehow try to convince us that they’re the victim in all this because, you know, they lost their toy train as a kid or something. But Anne Bonny is the first time I can recall of a female character following the same pattern.


Anne is a pirate, and she kind of acts like one, but she’s also a very emotionally immature and troubled woman. And this isn’t particularly surprising given her backstory—people who never had a chance to have a childhood often never really get a chance to grow up either.

The foundation of Anne’s life is certainly her relationship with Jack Rackham, another adult-child. While their codependency can’t exactly be described as healthy, there are other aspects to their relationship that are quite refreshing.

They’re not a traditional couple, that’s for sure. It’s not accurate to say that there’s a reversal of gender roles, because these characters don’t so much reject gender roles as they are simply not constrained by them. Jack is a bit prissy and he likes his pretty clothes, but he’s still a successful pirate who gets men to follow him. And she might be into pants and swords, but you don’t feel like she’s trying to reject femininity so much as she’s trying to behave in a way that will always ensure her the most agency possible.


Anne’s arc in season 2 centered around her trauma. Both the trauma of her adolescence and the effect Jack’s betrayal had on her. The way she reacted to it was… not good, but the narrative has always afforded her the dignity of not shoving her to the sidelines.

Eleanor Guthrie: Iron Fist, no Silk Glove

It’s bordering on cliché to say that when men act a certain way, they’re ambitious and assertive, and when a woman acts identically then she’s bossy and a shrew and worse. But, that observation is no less true now than when people started saying it 50-odd years ago. The dialogue surrounding Eleanor Guthrie, both within the show and in the fandom, kind of proves it.

Eleanor, like Max and Anne, is not exactly a good person. She’s a criminal, in fact. She uses people, and is not above having them killed for crossing her. She is power hungry and will do anything to not be out of it.

But Eleanor is also remarkable. She is able to keep control of an island full of murderous pirates through the power of economics. And she has all the sexual agency. As much as the fanbase seems unable to sympathize with her, the narrative always at least tells her side of the story.


There are two areas where I think Eleanor deserves our sympathy: firstly, she has always felt a strong sense of responsibility for Nassau and the need to think about its future. This often goes into the territory of “doing things for their own good” (a trait she shares with a certain male character), but she is sometimes able to go against her own short-term interest to do things for the good of the colony, like when she freed Abigail Ashe from the fort. Yes, sometimes she’s quite petty, just like every other human ever born.

Secondly, I challenge anyone not to feel for her in her relationship with her father. She’s out everyday making sure their evil empire continues to flourish, and he’s just a buttface who doesn’t appreciate her because—who even knows. There was a mention of her femaleness once, but even that was vague. My heart broke when she’s told that her father betrayed her in the end, and that their one hug didn’t solve everything.  


Madi: Long Live the Queen

Season 3 really raised the bar in terms of quality on this show. And it was the one plotline that seemed the most dangerous in terms of face-plant potential that brought us the most interesting—in this writer’s opinion anyway. I speak of the Maroons, and Madi in particular.

I admit to some frustration with the show in its early run for barely addressing the issue of slavery. It never pretended that it didn’t exist or anything, but when you have a story set in the West Indies in the eighteenth century, it’s hard to justify slavery ever being only in the background. Enter the Maroons and one of the most justified retcons in recent television memory. (I love Mr. Scott, but there is no way they had that planned from the beginning.)


The Maroons have lived for years with the knowledge that their continued safety as a community depends on secrecy. The Maroon Queen (yes, that’s what she’s called officially), Madi’s mother, has become ruthless in her determination to keep it that way. Madi is less sure about this violent isolationism as the best course, and she resists all her mother’s attempts to infantilize her, to tell her that she doesn’t understand the big bad world out there.

Madi’s sense of responsibility for her people is as palpable as any characters. And unlike the rest of these criminal types, there can be little moral greyness about the justice of her goals. At least not for the audience.

Madi’s arc is beautiful in its elegance. We see her growing into a position where she can sit at the head of the table over the course of just six episodes. And it’s only because she shows the judgement and the gravitas, to lead.

The way she hold power is quite different from Max or Eleanor, and it’s quite different from how her mother holds it too.

Abigail Ashe: Literal Cinnamon Roll

Lest you think that this show only has morally grey characters with blood on their hands, I present to you Abigail Ashe. The nicest person ever.

Abigail is never more than a minor character, you could argue that she’s little more than a McGuffin in the second season, but then she spends the voyage to Charleston writing about literary themes in her diary.

She gets nuance. And that makes her a hero.

Miranda: The Lady of Loss

There’s a reason I saved Miranda for last: I’m not sure I have her figured out.

It’s undeniable that she’s a strong character, but a few things are a little uncomfortable.

For one, it’s rather difficult to consider her apart from her relationship with Flint. While their relationship is also a very important part of understanding his character, he gets to plot to steal booty and stuff, she mostly plays the harpsichord. And once she fucked that preacher dude, I guess.


There are a few moments in the second season where she really shines, but… Yeah, Miranda was kind of stuffed in the fridge.

This makes me uncomfortable, but it doesn’t make me like her as a character any less. Miranda is a woman of deep convictions who had had to deal with a good many disappointments. Like Eleanor, people in universe are terrified of the power she wields over Flint (though, yeah, that’s not exactly how it is) and they use her as a convenient scapegoat when they’re unhappy with him. But Miranda is someone who will always be able to carve out something for herself in whatever circumstances she’s stuck in. She also never forgets the past, and what she lost.


And then she gets shot in the head and dies.

For Flint, for the sake of his arc of supreme darkness.

It’s not as though her death was unmotivated or that it didn’t work on several thematic and emotional levels—it was and it did. But the use of the Stuffed in the Fridge trope is only very, very rarely going to happen without being problematic. And considering how Miranda was already almost a consolation prize for Flint after he lost Thomas…. Yeah.

Miranda was a well-written, rounded character who was, in the end, disposable. And yet, I have a difficult time being angry at the narrative for it, not least because, in a cultural vacuum, I’m not sure I would have this problem. It’s not an excuse, exactly, and this is the closest thing to a misstep the show has in term of writing women, (after the first season, obviously) but my instinct is still to give it the benefit of the doubt.

Miranda’s a head-scratcher, but there’s no one else like her in this story.

And that’s really all you need to write women well: give them distinctive shape, beyond a simple archetype that exists to support a male character, within a narrative that will empathize with them, and even forgive them when they fail to be flawless.

That doesn’t sound like a high bar to clear, but it’s clearly a lesson that many writers still have to learn.


All images courtesy of Starz

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